Who would you choose as the best sports owners in Tampa Bay history?

John Romano: Between the Bucs, Lightning and Rays, we have seen 10 different owners (well, we never actually saw some) and now rank them from top to bottom.
Tampa Bay has seen its share of quirky owners, which might explain the community's unabashed love for Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times Photo] Dirk Shadd
Tampa Bay has seen its share of quirky owners, which might explain the community's unabashed love for Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. [DIRK SHADD | Times Photo] Dirk Shadd
Published August 29
Updated August 29

ST. PETERSBURG — Hey Tampa Bay, we have an anniversary coming up.

No need for cards or gifts. We can mark the occasion the way a lot of families do. A few drinks, a few laughs and, by the end of the evening, a heated argument about nothing.

We’re nearing the 45th anniversary since Tampa Bay was introduced to its first major sports owner. The community was granted an NFL expansion franchise in the spring of 1974 and, a few months later, the league chose Philadelphia contractor Tom McCloskey as the team’s inaugural owner.

He lasted 37 days.

I’m not big on metaphysics, but that seems like an omen.

For the next four decades, Tampa Bay had some of the most fascinating, cheap, bizarre and, finally, effective owners in football, hockey and baseball. Almost all of them were from somewhere else, which speaks to the lack of money in the market and how that reality has affected ownership.

In appreciation of the anniversary, and the recent passing of former Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli, here is a ranking of the major sports owners in Tampa Bay.

So have a drink, and let the arguing commence.

Dubbed the
Dubbed the "cowboys'' by former coach John Tortorella after he was fired, Lightning owners Oren Koules,left and Len Barrie did not look quite so happy after they had to work together. Scott Iskowitz | Tampa Bay Times



10 - Oren Koules and Len Barrie, Lightning owners from 2008-10.

I sought opinions from a half-dozen people and the only unanimous choice was Koules and Barrie at the bottom of the list. They fired coach John Tortorella, started ripping up the roster haphazardly and fought amongst themselves. Worst of all, they thought they were smarter than they really were and got too involved in personnel decisions. Also, they had no money.

Record: 58-76-30

Playoffs: Zero in two seasons.

9 – Kokusai Green, Lightning owners from 1991-98.

In some ways, the opposite of Koules and Barrie. The folks running this Japanese corporation didn’t know anything about hockey and, even worse, didn’t seem to care.

Recruited by Phil Esposito when he couldn’t find enough deep pockets locally, Kokusai Green should get high marks for rescuing the team after the NHL awarded the franchise, and also for getting Amalie Arena off the ground, but money was a constant problem and lawsuits followed wherever they went.

Record: 157-252-53

Playoffs: One in six seasons.

8 – Tom McCloskey, Bucs owner in 1974.

The NFL looked at a dozen or so potential owners after awarding the franchise, and chose McCloskey. Barely a month later he pulled out because of a disagreement over how the $16 million expansion fee was to be paid. So how do we rank an owner this low even though he never presided over a game? Because his departure forced the NFL to turn to Hugh Culverhouse. His group’s greatest contribution might have been floating the name “Buccaneers’’ before dropping out.

Record: 0-0

Playoffs: Zero in 37 days.

7 – Hugh Culverhouse, Bucs owner 1974-95.

One of the worst ownership reigns in sports history, interrupted by a brief spell of good cheer. Culverhouse went big at the start, luring John McKay away from USC to be Tampa Bay’s first coach. It might have been the last good decision he made.

The Bucs started out 0-26, reached the playoffs by their fourth season, and then were undone by Culverhouse’s relentlessly penny-pinching ways. The decision to low-ball Doug Williams in contract negotiations sent the franchise on a decade-long, downward spiral.

Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, in plaid jacket, and coach John McKay, in red hat, greet fans at One Buc Place in 1977 following the team's first-ever victory after 26 losses. Eric Mencher/Tampa Tribune  |  Tampa Bay Times
Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, in plaid jacket, and coach John McKay, in red hat, greet fans at One Buc Place in 1977 following the team's first-ever victory after 26 losses. Eric Mencher/Tampa Tribune | Tampa Bay Times


Record: 87-204-1

Playoffs: Three in 19 seasons.

6 – Art Williams, Lightning owner 1998-99.

Poor Art. His heart was in the right place, but he seemed miscast as a hockey owner. He rescued Tampa Bay from the debacle of Kokusai Green, and cleared up a lot of the Lightning’s debt, but a 10-month tenure cannot get a passing grade.

Record: 19-54-9

Playoffs: Zero in one season.

5- Vince Naimoli, Devil Rays owner 1995-2005.

He was a flawed man who accomplished a great deed. Naimoli got an MLB franchise in Tampa Bay when so many others had failed before him. The fact that Naimoli was a terrible owner once he took control certainly diminishes his legacy, but does not obliterate it.

Record: 518-775

Playoffs: Zero in eight seasons.

4 – Glazer family, Buccaneers owners 1995-present.

And now, our first real argument. A legitimate case could be made for the Glazers at the top of this list. They did, after all, win a Super Bowl. They also ended years of fan suffering when they took a risk by giving Tony Dungy his first crack at a head coaching job.

However, the Glazer reign has suffered since patriarch Malcolm died and the family spent a gazillion dollars buying Manchester United. They’ve been good in the community and have, on occasion, opened their wallets wide for players, but the last decade has taken a toll.

Record: 173-211

Playoffs: Seven in 24 years with one Super Bowl.

3 – Bill Davidson, Lightning owner 1999-2008.

Another contender for the top of the list. The Pistons owner brought stability and maturity to a franchise that had not known either. Four years after buying the team, the Lightning had its most successful run with four consecutive playoff appearances and a Stanley Cup title.

Record: 270-289-50-47

Playoffs: Four in eight years with a Stanley Cup.

2 – Stu Sternberg, Rays owner 2005-present.

If this list were compiled four years ago, Sternberg would have been the obvious No. 1. He completely turned the franchise’s fortunes, winning consistently despite one of the worst revenue streams in MLB. And he’s widely respected outside of Tampa Bay for his team’s innovative strategies on the field.

Unfortunately, the long-running stadium saga threatens to sully his legacy. Proposing to move half the team’s games to Montreal has not endeared him locally, and the fallout could get much, much worse.

Record: 1,148-1,092

Playoffs: Four in 13 seasons with one AL pennant.

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

1 – Jeff Vinik, Lightning owner 2010-present.

At this point, his saintly reputation almost seems like overkill. However, it’s impossible to argue the results. He’s become a valuable community asset, he spends money on the team, and he doesn’t meddle in the team’s affairs on the ice. That’s pretty much the definition of a perfect owner, and you could make a strong argument that Vinik is currently the best owner in all of professional sports.

Record: 402-238-64

Playoffs: Six in nine seasons with one Eastern Conference title.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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